DNR board not told of letters, including those from Rome chamber, opposing water rule

Article Published in The Atlanta Journal Constitution 02/10/2011

DNR board not told of letters, including those from Rome chamber, opposing water rule

By The Atlanta Journal Constitution

6 days ago

 

Members of the board of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources knew at a meeting last month there was a lot of opposition to a proposed rule governing how the state would treat some big water projects.

What they did not know — because staffers did not tell them — was that the federal government, Alabama state officials and the chambers of commerce of Rome and Augusta were among those urging the board to reconsider. Instead, staff from the Environmental Protection Division told the board most of the approximately 1,000 comments against the measure came from a form letter on an environmentalist website.

Following the recommendation from the EPD, the board approved the rule unanimously. But Board Chairman Earl Barrs said board members should have been told about the letters.

“You would think that a letter from some federal agency would get some consideration,” he said. “I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of the vote. I think it would have been fair for us to have seen that and had those discussions in committee meetings.”

Joe Cook, executive director of Rome-based Coosa River Basin Initiative, agrees with Barrs that it wouldn’t have made a difference, but called the omission “bad government.”

He predicted that snubbing Alabama’s concerns will hurt Georgia at the negotiating table in interstate water talks.

“The EPD essentially thumbed its nose at the state of Albama by ignoring their comments,” Cook said.

The interbasin transfer rule governs how the state will permit the transfer of water from one river basin to another.

Such transfers are controversial, in part, because of potential environmental side effects caused by rerouting great quantities of water from a river and not returning it after use. Downstream communities object to interbasin transfers because they can result in lower river flows in dry months, leaving them less water for their own uses.

Complaints over the rule boiled down to one word: should.

The rule said the EPD director should consider a variety of environmental and economic factors before granting a permit for a new interbasin transfer. Letters of opposition wanted to require the director to take those factors into account by replacing should with the word shall.

“Projects that allocate water for human use, like IBTs, can alter aquatic systems for many miles up and downstream of a project, as well as promote developmental opportunities that lead to increases in sewage and stormwater discharges,” Sandra Tucker, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to the EPD. “We encourage the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to strengthen the language in the proposed rule.”

A separate letter sent jointly by the directors of the Alabama departments of Environmental Management and Economic and Community Affairs took a similar approach, saying the permissive wording of the rule “does nothing more than pay lip service to serious considerations of the potential impacts of IBTs in interstate basins.”

EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said it is common practice to provide the board with a memo summarizing responses to proposed rules “rather than provide a specific response to each comment received.”

Officials with the Alabama departments and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they did not receive any response to their comments. Eric Prowell, a hydrologist listed as a contact in the federal letter, said a response was not required.

“We were more or less positioning ourselves for future debate on it,” he said. “Generally we don’t receive responses, but we go on record and typically they do revise what they do based on our comments.”

Prowell said it was “unfortunate” the board was not made aware of the letter.

Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said the board should have been fully informed before voting, especially the opposition voiced by the chambers.

The letters from the chambers of commerce urged the board to require the EPD to weigh all factors before permitting projects.

“This community as a downstream community is very concerned about long-term implications of interbasin transfers,” the letter from the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce stated.

Barrs said he does not think staffers omitted the letters in an intent to deceive the board.

“I’m not saying there couldn’t have been some soft peddling,” he said. “I’m sure they advocate for the position they feel is best for the state.”

Chambers defended the way information was provided to the board.

“It was truthful to say that most of the opposing comments were submitted using the same e-mail form generated from a website,” he said. “The memo explained what those comments said and also summarized the unique comments. All viewpoints were represented and nothing was slanted.”

Barrs said the board should have gotten the letters.

“If there are letters, individual letters that are of particular importance and don’t appear from some mass mailing, we should see that,” he said.

Rome News-Tribune Deputy Editor Mike Colombo contributed to this report.



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